How many people can you reach online with $5, a few hours, and limited advertising expertise? During a recent early-stage concept test, we found an answer: more than 2,000. Our goal was to get our prototype into the world prior to launching it to gain a better understanding of how the concept would be received in the market.


Early concept testing is essential to the design process. Without it, a seemingly great idea could turn out to be a flop, totally misaligned with consumers’ needs. Remember “New Coke”—a new version of the classic soda that replaced the original? Although the company had run tests, they only focused on validating the new taste; they neglected to see the potential impact of changing an iconic brand. It’s one of the most well-known missed opportunities by a company many know and trust.

These days, though, getting feedback is easier than ever. Thanks to social media ads, email campaigns, and digital surveys, we can reach thousands of people—and fast. Our colleagues at IDEO have even built a tool called Shape that allows designers to collect quantitative and qualitative feedback from prospective users in just a couple of days. But with powerful tools like these comes great responsibility. Now that we have the ability to test ideas at scale, we need to adapt our old-school rules of design ethics to account for new methods.

Ethical considerations have always been at the heart of our work. We even provide new IDEOers with a book called The Little Book of Design Research Ethics, which outlines three principles—responsibility, respect, and honesty—that guide us through the design research process with the end-user top of mind. However, as the technology we use continues to evolve, so must the way we apply these principles.


Here's what those three principles mean in practice:

1. Responsibility

We act to protect people’s current and future interests. We make participants aware of how we will use the information they share, and we take carefully considered steps to safeguard their information. Our priority is making sure our research is not harmful to people in any way.

2. Respect

We honor participants’ limits and value their comfort—because participants are people, not subjects. We strive to be considerate of their cultural expectations and sensitivities at play.

3. Honesty

We’re truthful and timely in communication, and we want to help participants make informed choices about what they share, when they share it, and how they share it. Consent is key, and every action taken should be with the user in mind. Our goals and motives must remain as transparent as possible.